It’s a bit surprising, when ya ponder it, there’s not a more lengthy and deep selection of quality cinematic choices when it comes to films about living in and around modern Tinsletown. Especially when you consider the inward navel gazing nature of the town. As the French female lead tries to convey in Henry Jaglom’s Venice/Venice when she keeps pointing to her herself, “you’re very much like Los Angeles, how you say…” Jaglom responds ‘Self indulgent, self- obsessed?’ Yes indeed, she nods her head affirmative…
Some of the better offerings come from the unlikely source of Michael Mann’s crime thrillers, a Chicago native, from a real city some would say, he has an outsider’s analytic view of the sometimes cold, aloof nature of the city. As Tom Cruise’s Vincent says when he gets in Jamie Fox’s cab in Collateral , “I hate this city, I read someone died on the train and it took a week for someone to report it…” That jaundiced view permeates the dark and lonely trek through the streets of LA. Mann also conveys the loneliness of Los Angeles single life in the sub story of DeNiro’s Neil McCauley and Amy Brenneman’s Eady in his masterwork Heat. Of course, it’s only a fraction of the sprawling film’s narrative. One of the best film’s about living in the City of Angeles is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which shares some of La La Land’s whimsical, dream like qualities. Whereas Lynch’s version turns into a nightmare, Damien Chazelle’s more a ‘if only’ scenario. Thom Anderson’s excellent doc Los Angeles Plays Itself also bears mentioning as well because of the way Anderson clearly and concisely makes the point Los Angeles starts from a point of inferiority, reducing itself to the moniker LA, and destroying its own cultural artifacts, something Chazelle’s film plays off of all too well.
Chazelle starts us off in that classic Hollywood trope of a traffic jam… in Winter no less, (a repeated sort of in joke: Winter looks the same as Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter again as the film’s divided into these chapters.) Only in this traffic jam, we get treated to a classical MGM like musical number that I admit for this viewer was a tad groan inducing, although I was much in the minority, as it’s conclusion brought a rousing ovation. It’s in this jam we first meet our leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, paired together again and once again their tremendous chemistry fuels their best work together yet. We quickly learn Stone’s Mia is a struggling actress, working at a coffee shop on the WB lot, and Gosling’s Sebastian is a talented and accomplished Jazz pianist, born a few decades too late as Jazz is not exactly the top genre on anyone’s Spotify playlist. Of course, as is an absolute necessity in just about every Hollywood love story ever made, they meet- not- so- cute. He’s an impatient jerk honking at her as she’s temporarily distracted practicing her ‘sides’ (look it up you Industry challenged people) for an upcoming audition. The second time he’s a jerk, as he’s just been fired from his gig at the piano bar in a posh eatery. Mia comes in, hearing his heartfelt playing and ready to pay him a compliment, he rudely and brusquely blows past her. The third time’s a charm when she gets a little revenge at a pool party where ‘Seb’ is playing key boards for a cheesy 80’s tribute band, she requests I Ran by Flock of Seagulls and gets to see Seb squirm a bit. It’s at this party that the two star crossed lovers lay the seeds for their nascent relationship. We discover Mia already has a boyfriend, Greg, whom we meet later and we’re lead into our requisite dance number where the two lovers assure us, in perfect Millennial style, they’re really not that into each other. A far cry from an infinitely better musical say like West Side Story (to be fair one of the greatest films ever made) where it’s love at first sight.
It’s scenes like these where phony barriers are erected to keep the lovers apart where La La Land feels a bit tired and stereotypical. Yes, a couple of cute in jokes keep things moving along like when Seb offers to get Mia’s car, of course everyone in LA drives a Prius like her, her keys have a green ribbon though. Where the film really excels, is when it documents Mia’s struggles as an apparently talented actress mucking her way through a series of disposable roles for a series of rude, uninspired casting directors who seem not all to enjoy what they do. She has a crappy job, and one would assume lives in a crappy apartment but no… Even though she shares a several bedroom apartment with several other struggling actresses, as is the custom in the movies, she lives in a pretty sweet pad. (Okay, maybe Mom and Dad send a grand or so to help with rent? Probably not, we see where she comes from in Boulder City, NV later in the film. Maybe it’s help from Greg, the successful businessman boyfriend played by Finn Whitrock, who by the way looks like he stole Jeroen Krabbe’s DNA as David Spade would say.) Mia and Seb’s relationship finally comes together when Mia accepts an invitation from Seb to see Rebel Without A Cause at the old Rialto theater. Of course, she forgets she was locked into a date with Greg at a business dinner. She’s ‘sposed to meet Seb at 10, and in the middle of dinner realizes she can’t really be happy in this world. She bolts out and makes her way to the Rialto. (How she gets there is a bit of a mystery, of course a power player like Greg would’ve insisted on driving them in his ‘Benz.)
Chazelle’s not on as sure a footing, despite his obvious affinity for music displayed in his two prior features, at presenting Sebastian’s struggles. Yes, he’s a man stuck in the wrong era but really, the evil boss at the posh eatery (J.K. Simmons) wouldn’t want Seb to mix in a little Handel with the pulpy Christmas tunes? Really? A guy who can play concerto quality piano and the guests are such a bunch of Philistines that all they wanna hear is Jingle Bells… Hmmm, in Los Angeles, the music recording capital of the world? Why do I have trouble believing that? Small detail I know, but it’s called quality screenwriting. Instead of relying on tired filmic stereotypes to create again, false barriers and obstacles, work a little harder to create realistic roadblocks for our heroes. Chazelle succeeds when the film delves into Seb gaining a measure of success when he starts touring with an old jazz cohort played by John Legend. By this time, the two are in full bloom, living together and loving being in love. But, things get a little sideways when Seb has to endure an exhausting tour schedule which will keep him on the road, and in studio, for the next few years. In the film’s best scene, Mia is actually supportive of Seb’s success, but unsure if it’s even what Seb wants to do. As is the case in many relationships, mixed messages and incomplete communication cause misunderstanding. Hearing just a bit of a conversation Mia has with her Mother on the phone, he hears her telling her Mom he’s in between gigs at the moment. He takes that to mean he needs a steady gig and thinks he’s doing what she wants. But, as Mia makes clear she only wants Seb to be able to support himself so he can really go for his dream which is to own and operate his own Jazz Club, called appropriately enough Seb’s. Things get even rockier when Seb misses a huge night for Mia: her one woman play she puts on, that initially doesn’t go quite as well as she’d hoped, so much so she decides to give it all up and go home. Despite the initial heartache, a life changing opportunity emerges from it.
To get into too much further narrative detail here would spoil the bittersweet, fun. However, one can say the way Chazelle decides to wind up his tribute to old Hollywood by makes this film truly and wonderfully, and dare I say it again… bittersweet. He riffs on the ‘ol Hollywood ending, all the while keeping in mind that just about anyone over 35 has a regret or two about the road not taken, especially when it comes to relationships. All too often, like Rick in Casablanca it’s about the girl who got away… Despite a few of my fussing and fidgety misgivings, I can say La La Land hangs around your head long after it’s unfurled, in the most engaging and wondrous way. Believe it or not, La La Land would make a fantastic double bill with another late, award season delight Rules Don’t Apply. (I saw them on consecutive evening guild screenings in Los Angeles, starting with Rules Don’t Apply.) Both films deal with young lovers in a by gone era, whose endings kind of mirror each other in reverse.